This review contains spoilers.
It’s a new year for Agents of SHIELD, and that means the show’s much-needed retool has finally taken place. Out with the tediously-ubiquitous holographic-interfaces, out with the flying plane that seems to have as much floorspace as a small village, and out with CGI done on a spare Amiga 500. In the place of those things, everything we’ve been crying out for: closer adaptations of the source material, closer ties with the MCU, and some cast members who don’t resemble the kind of pouting narcissists you’d find on fashion advertising. As someone planning to watch every episode, grateful doesn’t cover it.
The improvements are instantly noticeable. The appearance of classic Marvel villain Crusher Creel (aka the Absorbing Man) is a prime example of how this episode (and hopefully, the entire season) is utterly at odds with the technique of the previous one. Where season one gave us multiple false-start origin stories for villains who were named for (but almost entirely unlike) their comicbook counterparts, Creel arrives fully-formed. Completely acceptable, in a world where superheroes and villains are commonplace.
Taking a leaf out of the movie playbook, Creel looks right, he acts right, and as long as he picks up a ball and chain (he does!) we don’t need to know much more than that. It’s a genuine thrill to see him on screen, and the first time the show has expanded the MCU in a way that makes it feel more, rather than less fun. We can only hope the prosaic tedium of Centipede, T.A.H.I.T.I. and the Deathlok project are far, far behind us.
The cast benefits massively from its expansion, too. B.J. Britt makes a welcome return as Agent Triplett, the only SHIELD agent to receive a personality as part of his training. Adrian Pasdar’s Glenn Talbot is also back, providing an entertainingly hardass authority figure for this new, more rebellious SHIELD to kick against. And Patton Oswalt’s Agent Koenig is – of course – a joy in every scene, finding chemistry with everyone (though Clark Gregg in particular). It’s a shame two of the three undercover guys end up dead, but we can only hope that morally disengaged Brit Lance Hunter will be back, because this series needs someone that unpredictable in the cast.
The old crew are obviously back as well, but with more characters crammed into the same space, we see much less of them. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. The persistently wooden Grant Ward continues his quest to become a real boy by revealing that he has experienced human feelings, which doesn’t really change the fact that the writers think his most interesting quality is that he’s a romantic foil for Skye when it’s actually “how does a good American boy get seduced by fascist ideology?” – something the show remains too toothless to examine in any detail.
Speaking of Skye, over the break her Slayer powers have awakened thanks to some training from May, who remains entrenched in her role as Coulson’s friend and overseer (which is fine, since she’s the only one who didn’t need an overhaul). Meanwhile, Fitz & Simmons have finally taken the step the writing always joked about, becoming one person in what amounts to the episode’s only true misstep. Last season, the cast’s absolute inability to gel was one of the show’s biggest failings, so it’s no surprise that throwing a few more into the mix has given things a more cohesive feel.
As the new director, Coulson’s elevated position is the most interesting change made the original cast. Early on the episode draws to our attention that he’s becoming detached from his subordinates, even his former team members. Later, it reveals why. There’s no question he needs everyone he can get, but such a small crew means he has to avoid getting attached to everyone – even if he did personally recruit them, because sacrifices are ahead. As for the weird diagrams he was drawing last season, those are touched upon but not too heavily. It doesn’t matter. Unlike last season, there’s so much more interesting stuff going on that the bigger plots don’t need to carry the weight.
Of course, we can’t talk about this episode without also talking about the appearance of Hayley Atwell and the Howling Commandos at the start. As well as trailing the upcoming Peggy Carter miniseries (and being, by some distance, the most exciting part of the episode) it also introduces a new villain and a new artifact of mysterious power.
In true MCU fashion, it’s a Maltese Falcon-style scramble where various parties are attempting to get hold of the same trinket. In this case it’s unlikely to be an Infinity Stone, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the seemingly immortal Reinhardt (aka Daniel Whitehall) wants to get it back, and as he’s one of the heads of Hydra (in the comics, at least) that’s an interesting prospect. Even being able to use Hydra like this puts the show in the position it should’ve been in 12 months ago.
So Agents of SHIELD season 2 is off to a very strong start, and no-one could be more pleased than me about that. The momentum of last season’s finale hasn’t been lost, and indeed, it’s even been added to. Last year I criticised the pilot episode for, above all else, failing to recreate the feel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This year, it’s only fair that I praise the season opener for doing exactly that. I’m still not sure I care about the characters, but I am intrigued by the setup. And that, if nothing else, is a step further than it managed last season.
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